Table of Contents
What is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is relevant.
The wonderful thing about discussing Rhetoric regarding most anything, but particularly heated things like religion and politics, is that it only becomes more important the deeper we’re entrenched on either side of many dividing lines. Hating Rhetoric only reinforces the importance of being able to deal with it and defend ourselves against it — which requires a measure of Rhetoric to do, even alone to ourselves in hermitage. Embracing Rhetoric only encourages us to better develop and employ our own. As our knowledge and skills grow, we tend to stop digging ourselves into deep holes we have trouble getting out of, but in many areas it’s still hard not to trip over the many perilous gaps left open all around us, typically dug by the Rhetoric of others that have yet to do the same.
Rhetoric And Religion
Man – a creature made at the end of the week’s work when God was tired. — Mark Twain 1
Religion is emblematic of Rhetoric at work in any position we can take, particularly opposing ones on the things we’re most taken with.
Take any denomination or spin-off of the Judeo-Christian tradition, for example. If we’re a yarmulke-wearing or cross-carrying member, we’re forced to appreciate that every aspect of our religion is conducted, carried out, advanced, and spread through Rhetoric.That a being of infinite power, with the world more than at his disposal, chose words we can only now access in books, transformed by endless debate and translation wars, to leave his lasting impact on the world. That it all began with a contract holding human beings and a god to their promises. That weekly book-club sessions filled with wondrous speeches are the hermeneutics of salvation. And interpretation, oration, conversation, art, and imagery have eternal affects on our everlasting souls that we can only understand, appreciate, and use well through our own Rhetorical prowess.
Rhetoric’s role in religion, both in constituting it, conducting it, as well as the long history of hermeneutics on it, is the star of the show. Many I teach are surprised to find that legions of philosophers within and without religion — whom many more would like to have read but ever fail to attempt — actually spent large portions of their lives consumed by this very topic, and typically taught Rhetoric through their duration. Rhetoric’s historically had divine importance in divine matters, whether it being in interpreting how to live or waging initially intellectual wars over what any of it might mean, which have shaped the present arrangement of nations we all live in — even the notion of what a ‘nation’ is — as well as the intellectual landscape we all thrive in.
If our card is of a different camp, but still set on a religious table, we may believe and behave in any number of ways, but our convictions are no less Rhetorical. Rhetoric remains how our own religion operates, though typically with the added appreciation of being how it also competes , cooperates, and contrasts with the rest of them if we’re in any way on the fringes of being a majority — and with higher stakes because of it. If we locate morality in our beliefs, it’s itself immoral to blindly let others act immorally without at least attempting to sway them, and we have far more to sway when everyone else isn’t doing things our way. We contest and contend with them on Rhetorical grounds in an arms-race of the mind with eternal or iteratively incarnate stakes. Looser interpretations of any religious doctrine or text only make this even more so, as it reduces our means of being ‘right’ about what matters most to our Rhetoric, and relegates our means of defending ourselves against what’s wrong along with it.
Rhetoric’s how we convince others and ourselves of the truths we hold dearest. It’s accordingly been equally important to anyone doubting any form of divinity as little more than divinely inspiring literature at best, and manipulative nonsense at worst.
If we’re any degree of atheist or agnostic, Rhetoric is equally, if not more important to how we all live our lives. Through filters common to either lens, the majority of the world is under mass delusions of different sorts, caused entirely by Rhetoric, maintained through it, and only salvageable by Rhetorically unraveling other Rhetorical snares we’ve unwittingly been caught up in. The elderly may be too far gone to save. Youths around the world are still presently being indoctrinated, and have been for generations — which we know because we usually were one before we were born again. It’s horrible, and we should be angry about it, if not disappointed, that ill intentioned folks took the idea behind Santa Clause too far. Like Neo in The Matrix2, the code of life is viewable only by Serious3 Rhetors, everyone else under a sick spell they can only be affected out of as so many are affected into. We know all of this because the Rhetoric of those we criticize is weaker than our own, or more typically we’ve been taken in ourselves with Rhetoric against religion in ways usually parallel to those we criticize if we’re unable to criticize or articulate it. Together with our nefariously ‘neutral’ convictions, we fight against Rhetors of religion by employing better Rhetoric to what we believe are better ends as ascended and enlightened chimps made of cells, blessed with language and thought and science and things resembling them by circumstance alone, and not a bearded one made of bread and wine, or an elephant capable of waving to us eight times at once 4.
Ignosticism likely requires the greatest appreciation for Rhetoric, questioning the coherency of most religious conversations at all, and seeing it as something closer to the Tower of Babel. Innumerable numbers of us talk about equally infinite things. Everyone of us is equally as passionate about them. But when we stop speaking ourselves and take time to actually listen, however, we find we’re referring to entirely different topics. And we’re so caught up in it all that we don’t care to realize that we’re all speaking very different languages, shouting in divergent directions, and have been for some time because few of us stop to listen before speaking. Those that do are the ones that cared to, realizing we’re all crazy in the process, even the naysayers. We’ll never know if there are deities or not because we have no idea what we’re referring to when we ask, and even less so when we think we’ve been given an agreeable answer to our already ill-formed questions. In believing all of this, however, we assume a overriding coherence, clarity, and correspondence to language and thinking that seems to exist nowhere, as if what we ourselves were worshiping are words.
Mysticism in many traditions is rightly called word-worship, and operates in ways startlingly similar to ignostic views. Many religions and religious convictions either turn into a love affair with words and other symbols over time, or a bitter breakup with them and those wedded to them. Whether we attack or defend that, however, we also do it with words, and directed entirely to them. The different positions we can take share a lot more in common than not, in that what they share is us, and the way we share and experience them with one another.
There Can Be Rhetoric Without Religion, But Not Religion Without Rhetoric
I don’t present any of those views to sanction or agree with them, but to illustrate the importance of Rhetoric in all of them. Any view we can specifically hold is nuanced and unique if we’ve given any thought to it — which we don’t always do — but these competing views round out a nice spectrum of the ‘religious situation’. If there’s a bite to any of them, we’re bitten by their Rhetoric, and somewhere deep within us. The pain comes from there being something appealing in all camps, and in ways that don’t neatly reconcile for any but the ignorant or deluded. No matter which views we subscribe too — if any — they’re all deeply concerned with Rhetoric, whether it be in discussing them, discovering them, deciding upon them, or how they actually happen in the world.
Regardless of our grander beliefs, that conversation and our convictions certainly exist.
Religion is Rhetoric on all sides, for and against it, even in defining it as something we can be for or against. If it weren’t, there would be no point to it, nor appeal enough to care. And what it is that we do about any of that is entirely Rhetorical, and emergent from the Rhetoric we employ. Whether we preach or protest, we do it with and against Rhetoric, the best Rhetor being as close as we come to firm footing under any number of positions, whether we feel they’re elevated above the rest or not.
Whether we make light of religion, anchor ourselves in it, or see others as weighed down by it, we do it with Rhetoric. Rhetoric is more than the pillars of religion or politics, it’s the heart pumping the blood that makes it possible to be people that build and maintain either. And when that blood is spilt on the steps beneath those pillars, Rhetoric is what slipped it, and what we use to mop it all up.
Rhetoric’s either powerful enough to be the word of any number of gods and how we listen to them, or potent enough to trick trillions into believing that, while letting trillions more see through it.
Footnotes and Citations
- Mark Twain’s Notebook, 1902-1903 ↩
- Wachokski, Andy and Larry. The Matrix. (1999 Film) ↩
- This isn’t a typo, but a reference we’ll delve into more later regarding a trend in any discourse to assume a privileged position above all others, which isn’t usually maintained through merit or membership, but militantly controlling discourse itself. Broadly, that trend as it appears again and again across the development of any discourse or philosophy is ‘Seriousness’, which is positioned as diametrically opposed to ‘Rhetoric’. One of the earliest examples of it is Philosophy being positioned as ‘Serious’ in opposition to Rhetoric itself, despite everyone that supported that Seriousness relying on Rhetoric to convey it in all instances. ↩
- I’m aware this represents nothing accurate regarding anything remotely Hindu. That’s the point of the joke, which holds true as well with the former caricature. Both are meant to point out that many views against various religions only engage with caricatures of them in practice, and in precisely the same Rhetorical style that members of various religions are criticized for using when engaging with everyone else. ↩
He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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